On the wall of Dennis Basso's office, next to the framed magazine and newspaper stories about his now-25-year-old fur business and a thank you note from Meryl Streep — who wore Basso's sheared mink and Russian broadtail coat in "The Devil Wears Prada" — hangs a childlike drawing of a woman. She is wearing what appears to be a tiara, high heels and a dress embellished with lacy scribbles. The price tag "500,000" is scrawled next to her and, in the upper right corner, is the young artist's age: "7 years old." Basso points to the woman proudly. "I detailed everything down to her netted veil," he says. "Even then, I knew I liked things lavish!"
Indeed, since 1983, when he began designing out of a 400-square-foot space on Seventh Avenue in Manhattan, Basso, who will unveil his second ready-to-wear collection on Feb. 5, has built a company based on that most lavish of fashion materials: fur, namely sable, chinchilla, mink and shearling. Mention some of his most famous clients, however — Liza Minnelli was swathed in a Basso fur for her nuptials to David Gest; Diana Ross closed his 20th-anniversary show five years ago at Cipriani — and Basso is both pleased by the association and careful not to sound, as he says, only "razzle-dazzle."
"From the celebrities to the socialites to the hip-hop artists to the young fashion women, I've crossed barriers, and I love that," he says. To wit, his most famous celebrity customer dazzles quite differently than the rest — Hillary Rodham Clinton, who wore one of his capes when she was first lady. "I've made this company my life, but it's no longer about just one kind of client. I think that it's been a natural progression to working with a new generation of women. I feel that the next collection will really embody what the label is all about."
Basso will show that collection at Bryant Park after a one-season hiatus following his debut there for fall 2007. Prior to that, he had shown for years at nearly every wood-paneled, upholstered-to-the-nines hotel in New York, including the Waldorf-Astoria, the Mark, the Pierre and the Regency, which was the site of his very first show. Though his first one at the tents, in which he played up his rtw, was criticized for lacking direction, he plans to again present the range of his work. Fur will constitute only about 40 percent of the lineup he says is inspired by his current clients' predecessors in New York's social swirl. "I thought that this collection should somewhat reflect the great fashion icons of the past few decades," explains Basso, who in September opened his fourth boutique, in Atlantic City, following his flagship on Madison Avenue as well as boutiques in Chicago and Aspen, Colo. "We want it to be young, but always sophisticated. I looked to Babe Paley, Nan Kempner, C.Z. Guest, and I felt inspired by them because whether it was trousers and a T-shirt or a ballgown, these women focused on creating a look and a style, which happens to be polished." In addition to an evening bag line designed in collaboration with Darby Scott, cocktail dresses and long gowns in floral and feather motifs are the focus, with fur pieces including a tweed coat with horizontal strips of chinchilla. "I was originally a clothing designer who happened to end up doing furs," he says. "It was about designing the coat, and then finding the right fur to fit the design."From an early point, cultivating relationships with clients was a crucial part of Basso's business approach. Taking his cues from designers who worked closely with socialites and blurred the lines between dresser and good friend (notably Bill Blass, Oscar de la Renta and Carolina Herrera), Basso made it his mission to know which coat was going to which client while attending trunk shows across the country. "I'd like to think I'm a sociable guy," Basso says, flashing a smile. "I was often invited to events, and I reciprocated. I used the social aspect early on as a building block for my client base. I was never afraid of giving dinners at Le Club, which is no longer around, or Doubles. I did seated dinners at Studio 54. It allowed the clients to know about me, and it was a wonderful way to create friendships."
Although his original client base has moved into what he winkingly calls "fashion adulthood," Basso's determination to win over a younger set of socials and his foray into rtw are not indications that he has abandoned his hard-won foundation of fans. "I always believe that no matter how old someone is, if you love fashion, and you like looking good, you're going to do your best to be a part of that," he says of his longtime supporters, who include a Who's Who of New York's Upper East Side and many music industry types, such as Ross and Patti LaBelle. "You know, when I started to dress them, I was much younger, and they were much younger. And people don't desert their friends."
Although he has moved his creative and executive teams, as well as production, to a 30,000-square-foot space in Long Island City, N.Y., Basso continues to keep an office in the rear of his Madison Avenue store, where he is known to circle the floor and slip a woman into a sable jacket while offering up water or cappuccino on a silver tray. "I was always very in tune with what was necessary to create an image," he says. "If you look at other designers, many have added furs to their collections. I've just done it the other way around. The quality and finishing of our furs are the same for our clothes. You can do and say one thing, but the merchandise speaks for itself."